Egyptian Producer Riff Balances Shaabi & Lo-Fi Beats in 'Side Effects'
With moments of melancholia, Shaabi and ambient soundscapes, Riff's 'Side Effects' is a dose of hypnotic and stunning lo-fi beats.
2022 was a prolific year for Ahmad Refaat, aka Riff, an Egyptian producer who released upwards of twenty tracks across two albums, ‘Love in the Time of Antidepressants’, followed by ‘Side Effects’, strung together with solo singles like ‘Flos’ in addition to his collaborations with singer-songwriter, GASSER. Along the way, the producer from the El Khanka neighbourhood in Qalyubia, Egypt, has created a body of work driven by contradictions as both introspective with dance floor moments, industrial yet ambient, and driven by downtempo Shaabi beats, and whirling tinkly synth lines.
To a casual listener, ’Side Effects’ might feel reminiscent of Egyptian producer El Waili’s sound upon the first go. But Riff’s work isn’t always the most straightforward, just as it takes on a moment of El Waili-esque textures and tonalities, Riff changes gear to create a sound entirely his own. He does this through a range of devices, bass, sound design, lo-fi beats, and what he calls, “breaking the rules of syncopation, harmony, and adding swingy beats to reach his version of futuristic, alternative Shaabi music,” as written in the album’s liner notes.
We hear this all play out within the album’s opener, ‘Bulldozer’, which kicks off with a downtempo, dom-taka beat, followed by what sounds like a digitised nay backed by a synth, driving through the melody. Then, in ‘Sub & Qazf’, the descending synth lines take the spotlight, as the swinging beats combine with gadget and gaming sounds to add a levelling-up (and down) feel to the track.
Driven by pitch-bending, Riff’s synth lines take on a vocal quality through the granular, gaming effects and swing tonalities upon reaching ‘BW’. The track takes on more sound design, and while still maintaining a spaciousness throughout, the layers combine to give a more introspective mood. By the time we reach ‘Ay Yeah Kolaha’, the album takes a sonic turn, getting deeper into the sound design, this time with what feels like a cut-up vocal sample, layered and harmonised to sound like a voice taped in an echo chamber. It’s at this point that themes of depression, medication, and ‘side effects’ start breaking through.
Where his previous album, ‘Love in the time of Antidepressants’ was in many ways more clinical and clean, ‘Side Effects’ presents a fuller sound, more dynamic and loaded with Arabic and Shaabi tonalities. With the explicit mental health theme in the titling of the albums, we see these two works playing off each other in a way that is complimentary by means of this thematic thread that ties them together.
In ‘All that?’ the vocal delirium heard in ‘Ay Yeah Kolaha’, is pushed further. It sounds like the quiet before the storm, with a stunning ambient atmosphere, gentle trip-hop beats and a vocal sample that has been removed from the echo chamber, and instead, it begins to fade into the ether of the lo-fi sound design.
As we reach the latter half of the album, many of the Arabic textures we heard leading up to this point also fade away, giving more space to the dream-like atmosphere that drives the remainder of the tracks. The plodding beats and spaciousness of tracks like ‘Lolo’ and ‘7alaweyat’ make this album both a deep listening album perfect for contemplation but also a body of tracks that are easy to engage and great for activities that require focus, due to the loops that become almost hypnotic at times. In this way, it situates well in the lo-fi categories in its spareness, loops and laggy, loose drum pads and percussions.
Despite the metaphorical side effects and vocal samples that recite, “everybody is half dead,” in ‘Somebody Else’ the album still finds uplifting moments aesthetically. Meanwhile, the track, in all its contrast, is well-suited to the dance floor as one of the fuller and more speedy songs on the album.
There is also something generous about Riff’s album, as we find a body of tracks prime for any MC’s plucking. Whether an MC takes these tracks and runs with them lyrically, or if the tracks remain exactly as they are, Riff’s work manages to be accessible and comforting but also uniquely sound designed. True to the lo-fi beats genre, ‘Side Effects’ avoids getting too noisy or maximalist, the slow drum patterns instead loop alongside the synth lines blanketed by organic sounds and textures, like the subtle hiss of a dusty vinyl record. In many ways, Riff’s ‘Side Effects’ finds several stunning and bright moments that serve as a reminder - sometimes, the darkness helps give the light something to shine through.
See below to listen to the full album.
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